The politics of new districts

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Mulayam Singh Yadav is right when he says that too many districts are a drain on his budget, but the answer is not an arbitrary merger of what were once parts of a large district.

THERE are a great many things that have been happening to Uttar Pradesh; most of them have not been very nice. It used to be a well-administered State many decades ago, a model for others to follow; it was also referred to as the `heartland' of India for reasons less comprehensible to many. But then as the years passed, and the stature of the leaders of that State shrank, the State degenerated into a minefield of castes and subcastes, each trying to assert itself through surly, aggressive and arrogant leaders.

But what was even more alarming was the manner in which castes and communities began to be lobbied by various power brokers; this brought the level of politics in that State to the level of traders haggling over the price of brinjal and inevitably to a crumbling of the once much-admired administrative structure. Officers began to see much virtue and gain in lobbying and manoeuvring for what they saw as desirable posts; principles were abandoned for the skill acquired in sidestepping a logical choice for a particular assignment to get it for oneself.

Development projects were neglected, education and health facilities - not the very best to begin with - became, in many regions, appalling. As the State sank into the morass of greater poverty and misery, the growth of its population not only remained high but climbed even higher. Inevitably, there were more and more unemployed, and the State's finances dwindled to pitifully low levels.

To all this was added the monstrous destruction of the Babri Masjid, and the wave of communal hatred that was sought to be fanned by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and the Bajrang Dal. The activities of these two groups have been barely contained, and, strangely, their following seems, from what one hears, to have dwindled. Perhaps, people have grown weary of the endless rage and venom that they were being inundated with, or perhaps it was something else. Only time will tell.

In recent years, what has survived of the administration in that state has been attacked by a series of Chief Ministers who have tried to outdo one another in the number of transfers they ordered in their mercifully brief tenures. The result was that a District Magistrate in some cases was posted out within 36 hours of joining; some officers took to keeping their families in Lucknow, the State capital, and living out of suitcases, ready to move as soon as their orders arrived.

Then Mayawati, in a characteristically sensational move, carved out some nine new districts for the State after Uttaranchal had already deprived it of all its mountain regions. And now the new Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, in his second avatar, has undone this move of hers and abolished the new districts (except for two - one of which is his son's parliamentary constituency and the other that of the here-today-gone-tomorrow Ajit Singh).

Mulayam Singh's move has led to a wave of unrest and agitations that do not look as if they will end very soon. The reason is not far to seek. A new district brings with it new courts, senior police officers, avenues for the redress of grievances at the District Magistrate's level and other benefits. Litigants do not have to travel long distances to district courts; as and when a district hospital comes up then those facilities are available closer than before and so on. By merging the new districts back with the ones of which they had been part all these advantages would, in the common perception, disappear. Consequently, there is anger and demonstrations.

But what Mulayam Singh's action brings into focus is an issue that deserves to be considered carefully and seriously. Just what is the optimum size of a district? A very large district is that much more difficult to administer; inspections and supervision have necessarily to be less frequent than in smaller districts. There is, more importantly, the question of access to courts, hospitals, colleges and much else that becomes a major problem for people living in a large district.

The district is still the major unit of administration. Whether through the Zila Parishad or through the Collector (or District Magistrate, as he is called in some States) a considerable amount of administrative power lies with these bodies and individuals. Districts are divided into smaller administrative units, true; there are what some States call subdivisions, and others by different names, headed by a Sub-Collector or Sub-Divisional officer. But they have very little inherent powers and have to take the approval of the District Magistrate or the Zila Parishad for almost everything except some very routine matters.

But the moving of the greater powers that district-level officers and institutions have closer to the people is a very expensive business; apart from the buildings that have to be built, large numbers of officers have to be found, and all the paraphernalia of administration, from vehicles to stationery, add up to very large amounts. There is another aspect to the creation of smaller districts. It is the fact that as the number of districts grows larger, and their problems by definition smaller, State government officers tend to pay less attention to them all. It is an understandable phenomenon. If a State had, say, three large districts, every department would listen carefully to what the District Magistrate or the Zila Parishad of one of them said, since they would be speaking for about a third of the State. But if there are 60 districts, the chances of the State authorities giving the same consideration to the fifty-second or the forty-first are very remote.

Now that Uttar Pradesh has begun re-forming its districts it gives that State an opportunity to think carefully of what would constitute the right size for a district - where the people would have reasonable access to the district-level authorities and their powers and yet the numbers would not constitute a huge drain on the State's revenues nor lead to lesser attention being paid to issues brought up to the State departments by the district authorities. Mulayam Singh is right when he says too many districts are a drain on his budget, but the answer is not an arbitrary merger of what were once parts of a large district, not necessarily. It is in studying the problem, determining what is best, and then informing people of that first, before giving effect to any change.

Several factors would need to be considered; transport links, for one. The days of village folk arriving in the district town in bullock-carts to meet the `Magistrate Sahib' have gone; but are the links that are now available adequate, or are they too expensive? If the roads are in very bad shape, will it not make more sense to improve them first? And cannot some facilities such as colleges be provided at the sub-divisional level, as they are in some States? A group of seasoned officers could sit down and examine these and the numerous other factors that need to be resolved before a new unit of administration is set up or an old one revived.

There will still be agitations; lawyers, among others, will see to that, if the courts in which they practise are shifted. But when the reasons are known to the people, those agitations will eventually cease. And, for once, after all these decades, Uttar Pradesh would have shown other States how to resolve a problem that affects them all.

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